The State We’re In; Heroin Prescribing in the UK

Here is the unedited version of an article I wrote for the Drug Fields’ trade magazine, DDN (Drink and Drug News), which was published yesterday. The link to DDN website is here, and they publish both free online versions and hard copy mail-outs. It is an excellent way of keeping bang up to date with what is happening in the UK drug treatment system. Here is the link to the article as appeared and the issue of the DDN magazine.

Heroin is provided on prescription in what was known as 'The British System'

Heroin is still (rarely) provided on prescription in what was known as ‘The British System’


The average diamorphine prescription: A long way from street smack.

The average diamorphine prescription: A long way from street smack.










The State We’re In

‘The game of history is usually played by the best and the worst over the heads

of the majority in the middle.’ – Eric Hoffer

“I feel like they are waiting for the last handful of us to die off and that will be the end of heroin prescribing in Britain, as we know it”, I said miserably.

Gary turned and looked at me seriously through his spectacles, “If we don’t try and do something now there will be no diamorphine prescribing left anywhere in the UK”.

Gary Sutton (head of the Drug Team at Release)  tapped away on the computer in front of me, putting the last few lines on a letter to yet another treatment service who had been forcibly extracting a long term client off his diamorphine ampoules and onto an oral medication. It was proving to be a painful and destructive decision for the client, who was experiencing a new daily torment as his once stable life began to unravel around him.

The drug team and its helpline (known affectionately as ‘Narco’), all part of the UK charity Release, receives phone calls from people in drug treatment from all over UK. By doing so it serves as the proverbial stethoscope clamped to the arrhythmic heart of our nation’s drug politik and bears a chronological witness to the fallout from Number 10 affecting the individual, on the street and in treatment. In other words we witness the consequences of policy and treatment decisions, and try and support or advocate for the caller.


“...But as winter draws the shades on yet another year in

the drugs field, we find we are bearing witness to a tragedy,  

one of small proportions but with huge implications…”


But as winter draws the shades on yet another year in the drugs field, we find we are bearing witness to a tragedy, one of small proportions but with huge implications. It involves the last vestiges of the British System of drug treatment, the ‘jewel in its crown’ – heroin prescribing – and the decline of the NHS, under assault from a mercilessly competitive tendering process and the crude procurement that is defining its replacement. Is that where we are really heading?

It may be true to say that to try and define the old ‘British System’ is to trap its wings under a microscope and allow for a possibly contentious dissection; the late ‘Bing’ Spear, formerly Chief Inspector of the Home Office Drugs Branch, might be the first in line by reminding us that the implications of “’system’ and ‘programme’ suggests a coordination, order and an element of (state) planning and direction, all totally alien to the fundamental ethos of the British approach”. His point being that the essence of the ‘British System’ was that it “allows the individual doctor total clinical freedom to decide how to treat an addict patient”.

John Strang and Michael Gossop, in their thoroughly researched double volume book on ‘Heroin Addiction and the British System’, stated in the epilogue of volume 2, that ‘Amongst the (probably unintended) benefits of [this] approach may be the avoidance of the pursuit of extreme solutions and hence an ability to tolerate imperfection, alongside a greater freedom, and hence a particular capacity for evolution.’


“…‘Amongst the (probably unintended) benefits of [this] approach

may be the avoidance of the pursuit of extreme solutions

and hence an ability to tolerate imperfection, alongside a greater freedom,

and hence a particular capacity for evolution.’…Strang/Gossop..”


The average diamorphine prescription: A long way from street smack.

The average diamorphine prescription: A long way from street smack.

The British ‘Approach’ (arguably are more appropriate phrase) had once allowed for a level of evolution, of experimentation and pharmaceutical flexibility; three characteristics that are glaringly missing from front line drug treatment today. Although we have no room to discuss clinical guidance here, it is often the case that when presenting services with complex individual cases at Release, we are rebuffed by the response ‘it’s not in the guidelines’, ‘it’s not licensed’, or even, as if drug workers are loyal party backbenchers, ’it’s not government policy’!

Hindsight is a gift, and although many of us could while away the hours pontificating about just how and why it all went so publicly wrong for our ‘unhindered prescribers’ back in the day (think Drs Petro, (Lady) Frankau, and a handful of others), that would be to miss the point. The reality is, once we pick up and examine the pieces of the last 100 years, there are shining areas of light in our British Approach. Marked by both a simple humanity and a brilliant audacity, it permitted a private and dignified discussion between both doctor and patient to find the drug that created the preconditions for the ‘patient’ (today the ‘client’) to find the necessary balance in life.

Are we really back to the days of having to ask to be treated as an individual? Policy in treatment is today interfering to such an extent that the formulation that the patient feels works best for them (physeptone tablets, heroin, morphine, oxycodone, DF118’s etc.) may no longer fit into today’s homogenous and fixated theme of methadone or buprenorphine, one part of a backwards step.

Although the days of unhindered diamorphine prescribing are almost gone, thankfully, there is still a small group of well informed and supportive doctors, some of whom hold the rarefied Home Office licence to prescribe diamorphine (to people who are opiate dependent.) Regrettably,  there appear to be a good number of licensees who don’t use their license to treat opiate users at all possibly having never to have had the good fortune to encounter a suitably needy client in their catchment area.  Is it possible that they remain content to absorb the kudos and ‘super specialist status’ that the licence conveys without doing any of the work?


Prohibition, fear

“…Prohibition, politics and the soundbite media means we are doomed to discuss [heroin prescribing] under the umbrella of ‘treating the most intractable…”

 Fear and public ignorance has forced us to collapse any new diamorphine prescribing into a tight wad of supervision, medicalisation and regulation while prohibition, politics and the soundbite media has meant that we have been doomed to discuss this subject under the umbrella of ‘treating the most intractable, the most damaged, the treatment failures, the failures of treatment’.

Why must a treatment that has proven to be the optimum for so many, be left until people have been forced to suffer through a series of personal disasters and treatment failures? Did this narrative help to diminish the intervention? One of the benefits of the ‘old style’ of heroin prescribing has been the ability to take it home and use it like one might use insulin, which permits a level of independence central to any functioning life of work and leisure.  This small although hugely significant freedom can still fit comfortably as part of a transitional route for people progressing through more heavily supervised heroin programmes towards less supervision and as such needs to be retained, and even embraced.

The last few dozen people left on take home diamorphine prescriptions in the UK today, seem to be stable, functioning, often working people who no longer have so much as a ‘drug problem’ but a manageable drug dependence. This last group of diamorphine clients are remnants of the old system with, it appears, no new people taking their places once they leave. Today these are some of the very people who are now ringing the Release helpline to try and save their prescriptions altogether. They are frightened, most of them are in their fifties and having qualified for diamorphine many years ago because ‘nothing else worked’, what now are they to do?


In Switzerland, diamorphine prescribing has been so successful; they even have two programmes in prisons. (Now there is a ‘Sun’ headline, if I’ve ever seen one!). Clients in their community programmes pay around 45 Euros (£32) a month for their ‘scripts, something most British heroin users/OST clients would probably agree to in an instant if it meant diamorphine was offered.

In Britain, diamorphine prescribing has been ensconced in a political and clinical debate about the expense and fears of an imaginary tsunami of diversion. Yet what of today’s financial wastage? We have ways to deal with diversion, yet poor and frequent commissioning has a number of serious consequences, including a lack of continuity of care, a slide back to postcode variance, and not least, cost. An exercise to quantify the costs of tendering services over 10 years ago came up with a figure of £300,000 as the sum expended by all bidders and the commissioner, per tender. Money that could be better spent, surely?

A few weeks ago the LSE put on a mini-symposium on diamorphine with a panel of international clinicians, academics and research experts. Everyone present agreed that prescribing diamorphine, albeit in a very controlled supervised manner, had tremendous merit. Taking the idea from the success in Britain (e.g. Dr John Marks), today we see a method that has evolved across Europe; the Swiss, the Dutch, the Germans and the Danes, amongst others, are all doing it, treating thousands of clients, with great results. So it was more than frustrating to hear that our own diamorphine clinical trials had been closed this year with no plans to re-start them


“…Diamorphine should not end up marginalised and discarded because a

controversial new ‘system’ finds it far harder to tolerate than the patients

who receive it do…”


Diamorphine should not end up marginalised and discarded because a controversial new ‘system’ finds it far harder to tolerate than the patients who receive it do. The benefit is proven. It’s not a choice between maintenance and abstinence, addiction is not reductive to either/or and as treatment is neither just a science nor an art, and our clinicians should not be restricted to methadone or Subutex, or our clients subjected to a binary ‘take it or leave it’ choice in services.

by Erin O’Mara with massive thanks to Release and its intrepid Drug Team: published in Dec 2015 issue of Drink and Drug News

Missing Sebastian Horsley

Sebastian Reading Black Poppy

Sebastian Reading Black Poppy

Today as I was doing the final proofread for our newest issue, I was weighed down by re-reading my interview piece about Sebastian Horsley. He was such a warm and witty person, a Dandy personified; I just wanted to put in a few of his thoughts that I couldn’t fit in our article. Some will irritate, some will shock, but Sebastian said it like it was for him; he wasn’t afraid to be disliked, though he loved to be loved, he was a misfit – like us – and he saw that in our eyes, as much as we understood that in his.

Note: Sebastian died in June – a few days after his play, based on his book, Dandy in the Underworld opened in the West End.


Erin: “I have to say it is so refreshing to see someone live their life authentically, being true, individual; romantic and vulnerable. Fuckin brilliant I say! Fill your life with your own meaning and colours, not others.

Sebastian: That is such a beautiful sentence thank you Erin. I have tried not to be a hypocrite. I have tried not to build walls around myself. I have tried to live the truth of my life and it sometimes makes others question theirs. You see I am no different than them, I just choose to be honest about it. And you have done the same. But they call it immorality and are jealous because we dare to live whilst they have not the guts. But that is England for you.I cannot tell you how warming it is to meet kindred spirits. I choose life because I have no alternative, because I know that after death there is nothing at all. An affirmation of individual life, in itself and for itself, desirable because it is “absurd”, without final meaning or metaphysical justification. I can’t wait to receive the copies especially our one! And to see you at the play, My Love as Ever. Sx

Sebastian re a date for chat and tea: I suggest tea at  Saturday 20th say 2.00pm  Horsley Towers. 7 Meard Street.  Heterosexual tea, kinky tea, G& T, or notoriety? Although of course you know my favourite? Insincerity. Roughly when will this be published my dear so I know what to wear? Looking forward to seeing you and meeting Lisa. And being photographed by her. I like her website and am sure I can add to it with my gorgeousness, ha ha!

“Maybe I would like to get high with myself.  Still i find the allure of narcotics more exciting than sex, which is strange.”

Sebastian to friend (forwarded back to me from Seb): I just did an interview Black Poppy. How could I resist? “The Heroin Users Health & Lifestyle Magazine.” Priceless! Now isn’t that genuinely subversive in a pathetically non-subversive age? It rather be in that than any of those wanker Guardian/Observer broadsheets. Erin didn’t pay me but being on the cover is payment enough I’d say. Yes she is well. I really love her and I admire so much what they do. It is isn’t in my nature to support any cause or group but I support them with everything. Like you, I’m just so glad people like that exist. NOTHING LIKE THAT EXISTS ANYMORE APART FROM CUNTS LIKE US.

Sebastian: on Heroin

I always love the smell of heroin in the morning. Smells like … victory. SH

Everything was going to be all right. A coal fire on a stormy night, rain that could not touch me beating against the window pane. Streams made of smoke, and smoke that formed into shinning pools. Thoughts shimmering on the borders of a languorous hallucination.

Heroin is the only thing that really works, the only thing that stops you scampering around in a hamster’s wheel of unanswerable questions. Heroin is the cavalry. Heroin is the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of my skull, and wrapped itself darkly around my nervous system, like  a black cat curling up on its favourite cushion. It is as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm.

On drugs you know you’re happy. Heroin easily makes do without people. Out of almost nothing it creates a presence. It gives the gift of life. It  imparts depth and beauty to all, drawing it together, providing atmosphere, charm and intimacy with all the palpitations of life. It creates an illusion. It creates the illusion.

Sebastian says in our interview that he couldn’t use and work – “I would like to be able to take drugs and work, but for me its a very simple exchange; it’s taken me a long time and a lot of mistakes to work it out; if I take heroin and crack that’s all I will do, I cant do anything else. If i don’t take C&H I can do anything I want – apart from that.”

Look out for one of the last Horsley interviews in BPs next issue no 14. Funny, witty and kind, he will be really, really missed.

For SH’s Images, click here

Erin O

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